Reception pays tribute to ‘Dean Hutch’ and his culture of care

The dean who made “culture of care” a common phrase on the Rice campus was surrounded by faculty and staff who care about him during a reception April 27 at Cohen House.

President David Leebron and Provost Marie Lynn Miranda hosted the tribute to John Hutchinson (“Hutch”) for his eight years of service as dean of undergraduates. Hutchinson, who is also a professor of chemistry, will step down as dean June 30 to resume teaching and research full time.

John Hutchinson

John Hutchinson

“I could not have asked for a better partner in terms of helping make decisions that would improve the undergraduate experience and education,” Leebron said. “John had a great ability to know what things were important to preserve and nourish and what things were important to change, and he had the courage to pursue those changes. He never shied away from addressing or dealing with the unpleasant parts of the job.”

Leebron created the position of dean of undergraduates to replace what had previously been the role of vice president for student affairs. “In many ways I had John in mind when I created the position,” Leebron said. “Even though he wasn’t the first person to take the position, I couldn’t have been happier when he agreed to become dean.”

Leebron said that he didn’t always agree with Hutchinson, “but life was a little bit easier when I agreed to do things John’s way.”

Among the challenges that Hutchinson dealt with as dean were the implementation of a temporary and then permanent ban on hard alcohol in response to a lack of safety in alcohol consumption, development of a new version of the alcohol policy to emphasize student governance and safety, responding to the national awareness campaign about sexual assault on college campuses, and increasing support for students’ mental health and well-being in light of the growing needs of students with stress, anxiety and depression.

As dean, Hutchinson created the Center for Teaching Excellence, hired Rice’s first director of sexual violence prevention and Title IX support, helped implement the mandatory Critical Thinking in Sexuality course, made O-Week more welcoming and informative and advocated for the role of college master to be renamed “magister” to avoid the unintended connotation with slavery. Among his other achievements: He worked with Faculty Senate to create the First-year Writing Intensive Seminar (FWIS), he created the Student Success Initiatives, including the Rice Emerging Scholars Program, and he started and nourished Rice’s culture of care.

Miranda recalled hearing the phrase “culture of care” when she first came to Rice. “But it wasn’t until I had been at Rice for a while that I really came to understand what it meant,” she said. “The phrase came from Dean Hutch at a time when he was dealing with some very complicated and difficult student issues. It was used then and continues to be used now to call out to all of us to take care of each other.

“While Hutch has been dean of undergraduates, the notion of culture of care has permeated throughout the entire staff, faculty, undergraduates and graduate students. He has permanently and fundamentally changed the very essence of our university by calling out to each of us. The whole university is better because of it.”

Rice’s 11 residential colleges have played a major role in developing the culture of care. Over the course of eight years, Hutch has worked with 46 magisters. Margaret Beier, an associate professor of psychology who serves as magister of McMurtry College, spoke at the reception on behalf of all the magisters.

John and Paula Hutchinson

John and Paula Hutchinson at the reception at Cohen House. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

“Hutch has had an incredible impact shaping the development of identity and intellectual lives of literally tens of thousands of students,” Beier said. “When he trains us as magisters, John tells us to be present at the college. He lives this value – he is a constant presence. John and his wife, Paula, moved back on campus after Hurricane Harvey to eat with us, listen to us and help the adult teams and students at the colleges. Their presence was particularly appreciated by students who were displaced by the hurricane.”

Beier said Hutchinson also tells new magisters to remember that their family is “their first priority – no matter what.” At the reception, Beier told Hutchinson, “We – your college family – are releasing you back to Paula and your family with the deepest gratitude for your constant care and support.”

Hutchinson also engaged the college presidents and the Student Association (SA) officers to nurture the culture of care. He estimated that over 100 students have served in leadership positions during his years as dean, and he cited working with them as the “greatest joy” of his job.

As a gift from the college presidents and students, former SA President Justin Onwenu presented Hutchinson with a book called “Dear Dean Hutch” – a collection of letters solicited from students, alumni, staff, faculty, administrators, magisters and even Hutch’s 6-year-old grandson, Parker, and 3-year-old granddaughter, Corrine, who provided a sketch.

Onwenu recalled that when he was looking at colleges, his family was concerned that he might not have a strong support system in the nation’s fourth-largest city. “The day before O-Week, my family and I got the chance to meet Dean Hutch, and every reservation, nerve and hesitation that they might have had about my support system went out of the window,” Onwenu said. “He gave me advice about succeeding at Rice and made my family feel at home. Dean Hutch has truly impacted every single student on Rice’s campus. He is the backbone of what I think about as the Rice family. He’s such a wise, caring, insightful leader who made my Rice experience warm and life-changing. The entire Rice student body and I will be forever grateful for his years of service.”

Hutchinson said a few weeks ago a college president asked why he wanted to be dean of undergraduates. “Because I thought I could make a difference, that maybe I could make the university that I love even greater,” Hutchinson responded. “What I didn’t know was how much being dean would make a difference to Paula and me, and how much we would change because of all the wonderful people we got to know and work with.”

Hutchinson expressed thanks to Leebron “for giving me the chance and trusting me,” to Miranda for her support, to many partners and colleagues across campus, the magisters, his associate deans, directors and administrative staff, his longtime mentor – former Dean of the Wiess School of Natural Sciences Kathleen Matthews – and Paula, whom he asked everyone to thank also.

He concluded his remarks with a lesson he’s learned over the years.

“When I came in as dean, I thought the purpose of a university education was to help students gain the skills and knowledge to do what they wanted to be able to do,” he said. “Over time, I’ve learned that the purpose of a university education is to help students discover who they want to be and then to grow to become that person.

“That change in perspective matters, because it means that everybody in the university participates in that education. Every contact with a student is a learning opportunity for the student and for you – whatever the context, be it classroom or coffeehouse, research positions or requests for assistance, their complaints or complaints against them, times of trouble and times of triumph, moments of conflict or moments of consolation. Every contact with a student is an opportunity for them to learn from us and for us to learn from them.”

Reception for Dean Hutch

About B.J. Almond

B.J. Almond is senior director of news and media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.